The 1960s was a period of intense competition between Puma and adidas, fueled by the sibling rivalry of the two brothers who ran the respective companies, Rudolph Dassler and Adolph (Adi) Dassler. The more images of champion athletes wearing their shoes appeared in the media, the more revenue poured in. And the easiest way to get superstar athletes to wear their shoes were cash payments of thousands of dollars.
At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Armin Hary of Germany set the Olympic record in the 100 meters in Pumas, after having worn adidas in previous heats. On the podium, Hary switched back to Adidas.
Bob Beamon shocked himself and the world when he lept 8.90 meters (29 ft 2.5 in) at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. That was 55 cm (nearly 22 inches) better than the previous world record.
My assumption today is that high performance athletes are particularly fussy about their foot gear. According to the book Golden Kicks: The Shoes that Changed Sport, by Jason Coles, Beamon had always trained and competed in adidas shoes. But Mexico City during the Olympics was a fierce battle ground between Puma and Adidas.
Track groupie, Art Simburg, buddies to the Speed City sprinters of San Jose State College, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, was also a sweet-talking marketer for Puma. Simburg was able to “convince” many athletes to switch to Pumas in Mexico City, including Beamon.
So when Beamon made the long jump finals, prior to that massive jump, he did so in Pumas.
But in a switch that was becoming less and less uncommon, Beamon slipped on a pair of adidas shoes, and launched himself into the history books with a record leap that stood for 23 years. And the shoes that shine in all of those pictures of Beamon’s gigantic jump – the one with the three red stripes of adidas.
The battle between Adidas and Puma is no coincidence – their cut-throat competition founded on a blood rivalry.
There once was a company called Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik, formed after World War I by Christoph Dassler in the town of Merzogenaurach in Germany. Christoph’s two sons Adolph and Rudolph became active in the family business. With the help of partner blacksmiths who made spikes for track shoes, they built shoes for runners, and famously got American Jesse Owens to wear their track shoes at the 1936 Olympic Games. Owens won four gold medals in those shoes, and the Dassler brothers got incredible insight into the power of branding.
But the family business would not last. As Andrew Jennings wrote in his book, The Lord of the Rings: Power, Money, and Drugs in the Modern Olympics, “…the two brothers had a dreadful argument. So dreadful was the dispute that Adolph and Rudolph decided never to speak to each other again. They parted company and ran rival shoe businesses in the town on either side of the Aurach River.”
Adolph, who was called Adi by family and friends, combined his nickname and the first syllable of his last name to form the brand “Adidas”. Rudolph chose a sleek and powerful big cat to represent his shoe company “Puma”. The company not only split in two in 1948, so did the town, as Richard Hoffer explains in his book on the Mexico City Games, Something in the Air.
“This created a civic tension in the town, as well, as scores of employees were now forced to take sides, some with Adolf’s newly formed Adidas company, others with Rudolf’s Puma. It was said that townspeople walked the streets with their heads down, the better to check out their neighbors’ footwear, and thus identify their family allegiance.”